The first month of Brad Treliving’s first season as general manager of the Maple Leafs hasn’t exactly gone as planned.
The coach he extended for no real reason, Sheldon Keefe, hasn’t looked very Jack Adams-like.
The free-agent signings Treliving made — $5.5 million for Tyler Bertuzzi, $4.15 million for John Klingberg, $3 million for Max Domi, about half of that for Ryan Reaves, $14 million in all — have looked like salary cap space badly misused and haven’t produced anything to be truly optimistic about in the early season. The lineup that Treliving believed was better defensively than many perceived it to be has not been at all tight.
And the goaltending he hoped would be average to above average has been average to below average.
Monday night started out like it was about to begin the latest Leafs crisis, the first of this new season. The Leafs trailed the formerly dynastic Tampa Bay Lightning 4-1 in the first period and appeared on their way to a fifth straight defeat. By the time the first 20 minutes were done, Nikita Kucherov had contributed four points, just one more than Bertuzzi had managed in his first 11 games in Toronto.
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By the time the night ended, Auston Matthews had passed the San Jose Sharks in goal-scoring, the Leafs had won in overtime against their arch-rival — these Lightning games are crazy, but fun to watch — who can’t seem to win anything after regulation in the playoffs or regular season. For those counting, that’s 11 straight overtime losses for the Lightning.
And for those counting on the flipside, that’s just three regulation victories in 12 games for Treliving’s Maple Leafs.
But the win mattered for the 6-4-2 Leafs, who needed to end a losing streak of four in the early season and, more than that, needed to show some life and some drive and some energy and some give-a-damn that hadn’t been really evident in the early part of the regular season.
If that was another night to wonder about Treliving’s roster — and there is still so much to wonder about — it was a night of some triumph for coach Keefe, who needed something to go his way.
He moved the rookie, Matthew Knies, to the line with Matthews and Mitch Marner, which is the promotion of all promotions for a kid. Knies didn’t get the appointment because he necessarily grabbed it. He got it because those chosen before him, Bertuzzi and Calle Jarnkrok, dropped the baton.
Knies scored a goal on his first night with Matthews and Marner, made a skilled backhand pass to Matthews for a goal, looked like he tipped a Matthews shot for another goal (he didn’t tip it, he just screened goaltender Jonas Johansson) and seemed completely comfortable having a three-point night and a plus-4 rating on his first full game this season alongside Matthews and Marner.
The Knies move to the first line meant a revamped third line with Max Domi centring Jarnkrok and the callup Nick Robertson.
It also meant, as the night went on, the third line had a little more speed than usual, a little more drive, a touch more desperation.
Domi has not had a strong beginning to his dream time with the Leafs. But playing centre Monday night, a position he hasn’t often played, he appeared a step quicker, a touch more enthusiastic, and he began a play that set up Jarnkrok’s first goal of the game, coming after he got the puck to Robertson, whose quick delivery led to a rebound score.
One goal from Jarnkrok tied the game at 4-4 after the Leafs trailed 4-1. The second goal won the game in overtime, that rare piece of ice for Jarnkrok at 3-on-3, with William Nylander getting yet another point on a night he did little else, on a three-way passing play with Morgan Rielly.
The Leafs got the win, but concern remains. You can’t play winning hockey and have to depend on scoring five or six a night. Ilya Samsonov started in goal for Toronto and allowed four goals on 13 shots. His night ended early. Joseph Woll came out of the bullpen to pick up the victory, stopping 18 of 19 shots.
You can’t live successfully off a lineup that doesn’t contribute more up and down the roster. Bertuzzi, who is bringing new meaning to the word ordinary, has scored two goals this season, both on the power play. Domi made a difference on Monday night, but still is goalless in 12 games. Reaves hasn’t scored or done much else for that matter. Klingberg is a hold-your-breath kind of defenceman: You never know what will got right or wrong at any point in time.
The Leafs have a busy week. The new Battle of Ontario on Wednesday night. The Hall of Fame game Friday against Calgary. The red-hot Vancouver Canucks looking to embarrass them on Hockey Night in Canada and then the trip to Sweden. It’s a whole lot of hockey in a scant few days.
It’s a time for the Leafs to try to find themselves and determine who they are. This is nowhere near the team Treliving envisioned.